Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Remembering Edith Thompson

Address at University College London on the 90th anniversary of Edith's death

9 January 2013

For about 20 years now a service of remembrance has been held on this day at St Barnabas, Manor Park, Edith’s parish church, where she and Percy were married in 1916. It was while I was there as a student on placement that I first encountered her story. Parish churches have a particular role in English culture, as they are there, available, for the wider community, of all faiths and none, as well as for the congregation of worshippers. They are historic buildings, visible signs of continuity, places which hold the memory of a locality.

Remembering is about giving life, like putting back together a body, re-membering. It is about finding our place, our membership, in the community of narrative. Just as the Eucharist, the central act of Christian worship, for which parish churches were built, is an act of remembrance, anamnesis, not forgetting.

People remember because they are concerned about keeping faith with the truth. By truth I don’t simply mean empirical facts, though those are important, things like the evidence in a trail and the verdict of a court. I mean a commitment and attention to the truth of the human person, the profound and mysterious identity which stands before us and yet which eludes reduction to mere data. Each human person is unique, unrepeatable, a world of possibility and a depth of mystery. And that unknowability is perhaps part of what is meant when the Book of Genesis says that human beings are created “in the image of God”.

Attention to the truth of the person matters because it is so often obscured and forgotten, and when that happens the person herself is in danger. Would it have been possible, I wonder, to have hanged Edith Thompson if her character had not first been blackened, if she had not been reduced from the mystery of a person to the merely empirical mask of an immoral adulteress?

The anthropologist RenĂ© Girard has I think contributed greatly to our understanding of how the mask of myth comes to obscure the truth of the person. According to Girard, human desire is mimetic, that is we imitate – unconsciously – one another’s desires. So I and the person I am imitating will desire the same thing, and if we can’t both have it we are in danger of rivalry, and even of conflict and violence, for desire is never static, and forgetting the original object of rivalry shifts into a mutual obsession of the rivals themselves. This triangular nature of desire is well known, but Girard’s genius lay in showing how these triangles join up, how desire and rivalry can spread through the interconnecting networks of a wider group, a whole society. 

And if a whole society is threatened by its own violence, mimesis produces another phenomenon: the scapegoat. The mimesis of the group resolves itself against a convenient victim, all against one. The violence that threatened the group is defused by being unleashed against someone who, crucially, has to be seen by the group as deserving what they get. So, classically, scapegoats are held guilty of taboo breaking crimes, of offending the gods, of bringing the plague, of mysterious and impossible poisonings, and so on. The key thing is that they must seem to be completely different from the group. The truth of their human identity – that they are actually just the same as everyone else – has to be obscured for mimesis to do its unconscious work.

In Edith’s story I think we can see both these things going on: both the triangularity of desire and its disastrous consequences, and the escalation to her designation as the scapegoat, the descent of the veil of myth over the truth of the person. Before the court she became a different kind of being, removed to the other side of a boundary of taboo where, somehow, death did not appear as violence but as justice.

Girard himself, having been an agnostic, became a Christian once he had read the Bible, for he realised that the Bible generally doesn’t do this. Unlike the other ancient texts he had studied, the violence in the Bible – and there is a great deal of it – is not disguised, the humanity of the victim never quite disappears from view. This is perhaps most obvious in the crucifixion of Jesus. The whole scapegoat mechanism is in plain view: the murderous mimesis of the mob, the accusation of blasphemy, the ritual boundary of separation outside the city wall, the actual innocence of the victim, the unconsciousness of his killers. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What it all amounted to was a denial of truth. Jesus, on trial for his life before Pontius Pilate, said that he had come into the world to bear witness to the truth, and Pilate had replied, “truth - what is that?”, before washing his hands of the whole notion.

Avis Graydon also came to faith after her sister’s death, and remained devout for the rest of her life. It was Avis who requested that there be an annual Mass offered for members of the Graydon family on the anniversary of Edith’s death. 

But of course it is not only Christians or religious believers who wish to remember Edith, to keep her story alive. Attention to the truth of the person is fundamentally about recognising our common humanity. It is about resisting the veil of myth that tries to reduce a person to a scapegoat. The deaths of Percy, Edith and Freddie were acts of absurdity, a denial of meaning, a turning away from the truth of the person. 

And such denials and absurdities have not ceased. The death penalty persists in many parts of the world, and we cannot afford to be complacent about it never coming back here. It worries me that we have a government which likes making noises about unravelling our commitment to European Law and human rights. It worries me that in December British subject Lee Aldhouse was extradited to Thailand to face a murder charge apparently without the UK authorities first obtaining the usual assurances that the death penalty would not be sought. It worries me that our government wants to bring in a law to allow homeowners to kill intruders, the Prime Minister announcing the plan to the applause of his party conference and saying, “When that burglar crosses your threshold, invades your home, threatens your family, they give up their rights”. 

As a Christian priest I am someone who remembers a particular narrative, who interprets the world through the story of a particular person who was betrayed and handed over to death. Christians place that narrative in a framework of faith because we believe that it did not end with the killing of the victim on Good Friday, that after human violence had done its  perennial worst something new, unlooked for and wholly creative entered the world. For Christians the resurrection points to a creative principle behind the universe which simply will not give up on us; it is an assurance that absurdity will not win in the end, that the truth of the person will not finally be lost, that the human project will not ultimately fail.

I would like to suggest that that leads us to a common ground, whether or not we happen to identify with a particular religious narrative. Believers view the project of creation as embracing the whole cosmos and everyone in it - not just the minority with a religious outlook. And it seems to me that, whatever one’s faith, to be attentive to the truth of the person entails rejecting absurdity and the denial of meaning. It is to be committed to a true humanism which affirms that each person is unique, unrepeatable, and profoundly mysterious, and that therefore each person actually matters. It is to keep faith with the truth. And that, I would suggest, is reason enough for us all to remember.

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